Friday, March 11, 2011

Amateur Friday - Vortex

Genre: Period/Drama/Thriller
Premise: A young drifter infiltrates a married couple’s home, roping them into an insurance scam that results in disaster.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted.
Writer: David H. Littleton
Details: 101 pages

This Friday I wanted to read something different. I was tired of fantasy and sci-fi and big bubbly rom-coms. I wanted something that challenged me, that treated its subject matter a little more maturely, something like The Brigands of Rattleborge. Perhaps that’s why I took a chance on Vortex, which had the makings of a good old fashioned character piece, wrapped inside a thriller.

The year is 1947. Brittle but hard-nosed beauty Evelyn Abbott is being questioned by a detective regarding a recent event that, for right now, will remain a mystery. All we know is that a handsome young drifter named Nick Driscoll keeps coming up in conversation and is therefore a central component to whatever interrogation-worthy event that just happened. 

Evelyn explains that it all started when her clumsy husband, Nathaniel, nearly ran into Nick on his way home from work. Feeling terrible about the near catastrophic accident, Nathaniel insisted that Nick come to his home and spend the night to recover.

Uptight Evelyn disagreed with this, but as her husband was notoriously philanthropic, she realized she had no say in the matter. Of course one night quickly became two, two three, and before Evelyn knew it, Nathaniel was asking Nick to work at the family General Store.

Evelyn avoided the pesky Nick whenever she could, but soon began to fall for him. Not long after, they started having an affair. Somewhere around this time we finally learn what the investigation is about. This store of theirs recently burned down, and the authorities believe the reason for this to be arson, an attempt by the couple to collect on insurance.

When Evelyn denies any such tomfoolery, the detective moves on to Nathaniel, her husband, and we get his side of the tale. Surprisingly, their stories match up identically, expect for one key difference. (Spoiler) Nathaniel and Nick were having an affair as well! Nick was actually playing both sides of the fence, and it was HE who had come up with the idea to commit arson so they could collect the insurance. However, ever since the store burned down, Nick is nowhere to be found. And both Evelyn and Nathaniel swear that while they initially considered the plan, they both backed out at the last second. This would imply, of course, that Nick went through with the fire himself. However why is it, then, that he’s nowhere to be found. He can’t collect a check if nobody knows where he is. This, of course, leads to an even deeper question.  Who is Nick Driscoll? 

Vortex is a funky script. It’s got some good things going for it. The writing feels very professional. The prose and dialogue unwind satisfactorily. But the story itself isn’t constructed in a way that best takes advantage of the dramatic situation at hand.

My first issue is one of confusion. Nobody tells us what’s happened when the movie starts. We don’t know why we’re in this interrogation room or what our characters are talking about. There are brief allusions to events, but we don’t know where or what or how any of these things have to do with Evelyn. Contrast this with the opening of the similarly constructed Nautica, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. We open on an exciting rescue of a barely-alive man in a nearly sunken yacht, who’s charged with the murder of another man found 500 miles away in the sea. So right away we know what our story is about and the sense of mystery has us asking a lot of questions we want to know the answers for.

In Vortex, we don’t know anything, so the introduction of flashbacks feels unnecessary. Why flash back to see what happened when we haven’t been given a reason to be curious about what happened in the first place?

This leads to one of the biggest problems with Vortex: Stakes. In Nautica, the stakes are a murder charge! That’s a huge freaking deal. You get charged for murder and you’re either getting the chair or spending the rest of your life in jail. Here, the stakes are…arson? Which gets you…what? With a good lawyer, maybe a year in jail? Possibly community service if you're lucky. As a result, we never feel any true danger for our protagonists.

Incidentally (spoiler) much later on, we find out there was a body in the fire, but for whatever reason, this is treated as an insignificant development compared to the arson itself. What Littleton probably should’ve done was make that dead body the hook of the story. They meant to burn this place down for the insurance, but instead, someone was found inside, and now both of them are being charged with murder. Now we have ourselves some stakes. Now we have ourselves a story.

Speaking of story, there isn’t enough story density in Vortex. Very little happens in this movie. When we flash back, we get scene after scene of characters getting to know each other. We have a few arguments. A couple of minor run-ins at the General Store. Some reluctant flirting. Overall, the relationship takes forever to move along. Contrast that with Nautica, where one scene we’re on the island with two old friends recognizing each other, next we’re on the boat where the girlfriend is flirting with our hero, next they’re making out down below with the boyfriend ten feet away, later there’s a fight and they’re thrown off the boat, then we’re flashing back to New York to figure out how they got here. I mean every scene is yanking a Titanic sized ship of story along with it, whereas in Vortex, it feels like we never leave the island. You have to *pack* story into your script. If you inch along, you’re going to lose your audience. When a reader or a development exec calls a story “thin,” this is usually what they’re referring to. Not enough happens.

Motivation is another issue here. Whenever your characters put together a dangerous plan, they need to have a good reason to do it. Or else why risk it? Normally, this motivation is money. Someone’s in over their head and their only way out is [the big risky plan with the big financial payoff]. Here, I couldn’t figure out why Evelyn and Nathanial needed this money so badly. They occasionally bring up the notion of “starting over,” but we’re never sure what they need to start over from. Granted they’re not the Rockefellers, but it seems like they’re doing just fine financially. This is compounded by the fact that on the verge of the big fire, they still don’t even know what they’re going to do with the money. If your characters don’t desperately NEED whatever it is they’re going after, then we the audience are thinking, “Why are we supposed to care about this?”

This stems from a much bigger issue, however, which is that Nathaniel and Evelyn’s relationship is never defined. We don’t know what their relationship used to be like, when it got bad, why it got bad, what their central issues are, what they loved about each other, what they hate about each other, what caused their downfall. All we know is that there’s some distance between them. That’s it. This vague interpretation of their relationship makes it impossible for us to get interested when Nick comes along and breaks them up. Cause he’s not really breaking anything up. For all we know, these two are living two completely separate lives anyway. If we don’t sense that there are consequences to them getting caught, then there’s no tension to either of these devious affairs.

I know Nautica wasn’t perfect, but it got all those story elements right. And I’m not knocking Littleton. I think Vortex has a ton of potential. But these are the differences between most pro and amateur scripts. Amateur scripts have good ideas, a few nice scenes, and lots of potential, but the story elements that actually mine the drama aren’t realized yet. Sometimes that’s because the writer doesn’t want to put in the effort and sometimes it’s because he just doesn’t know how important these things are yet. But for Vortex to exist on the same level as Nautica, it’s going to need to address things like stakes, clarity, and character exploration.

As a writer, I like Littleton’s vision, but let’s infuse more drama into this situation. Vortex has the potential to be a solid thriller if he puts the work in.

Script link: Vortex

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: You can’t have a relationship/marriage at the center of your screenplay and not explore that relationship/marriage. And for that to happen, you have to figure out who your couple is. You have to know how they met, why they fell in love with each other, important moments that shaped their lives, when it went wrong, why it went wrong, what the central issue is in their relationship right now. I had a friend who had the perfect marriage, and then one day his wife was incorrectly accused of stealing money from the company she worked for and got fired. This was a devastating blow to her confidence. The problem was, my friend traveled a lot for his own job so he wasn’t there for her during this critical time. She held that against him, started pulling away, found someone else who was sympathetic to her situation, and badaboom badabing, marriage over. All in a matter of six months. My point is, there are *real things* that pull people apart. There are real reasons behind people’s actions. If you don’t know the history behind the couples you’re exploring, you can’t explore them, and both the relationship and the story will feel thin as a result.